Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Mac - Ze Knife!

What a difference 40 years makes. In 1973, Steve Hackett played the Bataclan theatre in Paris as a member of the 'classic' line-up of the prog giants Genesis.

Somewhere on YouTube is a clip of the show, featuring the-then Peter Gabriel-fronted band succumbing to snafus such as the 22-year-old Phil Collins missing a drum cue and Gabriel himself fluffing lines because he is busy charging about in a variety of cumbersome stage costumes.

In 2013, however, and a short ride from the Bataclan in the 10th arrondissement to Le Trianon in the 18th, Hackett's biggest problem is a crashed MacBook requiring a reboot.

"How about we play some blues while we sort this out?" asks the convivial guitarist to an audience of invariably paunchy, balding, T-shirt-wearing Frenchmen in their 50s and 60s. Indeed, with scarcely a full head of hair to be seen, it is likely this crowd is enjoying a rare night out and frequently uttering the French for "they don't make songs like this any more".

The frozen Mac is unfortunate, but it happens. In days gone by entire concerts could be wrecked by drunken drummers turning up under the influence (Keith Moon, obviously) or not at all. Tonight, though, it's the opening night of Hackett's European tour, so not ideal timing for the laptop attached to ivory-tinkler Roger King's keyboards to crash. But, then, I'm still amazed that entire gigs are held together by just such a laptop. Which probably explains why you see more Macs than PCs.

But I digress. It is just two songs into the evening. Hackett and band - King, drummer/singer Gary O'Toole, saxophonist and flautist Rob Townsend, bassist Lee Pomeroy, and the flamboyant Swedish vocalist Nad Sylvan - having already dusted off Watcher Of The Skies, from the 1972 Genesis album Foxtrot, and Chamber Of 32 Doors from 1974's Lamb Lies Down On Broadway, the double album that made nods to punk's stirring, and which proved to be Gabriel's final studio record with the band.

That Hackett has resurrected two of his old band's older songs to open the show is no coincidence: his entire tour is a presentation of Genesis Revisited II, a second compilation of new recordings of material Hackett played on as the band's lead guitarist between 1971 and 1977.

This does make it tempting to position Hackett as another rock star on the heritage trail, raiding the back of the sofa for lost coins and errant M&Ms, but this is no Spandau Ballet/Go West package tour digging up the puffball-skirted 1980s just for the nostalgia of it. True, there is clear nostalgic value - as the cast of Cocoon: The Return bopping away in the rows in front of me are clearly indulging - but for a guitarist who left Genesis in 1977 out of creative frustration (his own songwriting wasn't receiving enough consideration from the rest of the band), he is here to remind us all just how fluid and innovative his guitar playing is. Indeed Eddie van Halen and Brian May are said to have picked up their fretboard 'tapping' technique from Hackett, who first used it on 1971's Nursery Cryme.

Performing material from his years with the band in 2013 it sounds surprisingly fresh. Unlike the breath of the bone-domed air drummer sat next to me who manages to sing, out of tune, through most of the show. A few rows further forward, an even older fellow - resplendent in braces holding up his elasticated trousers - spends the evening wigging out as if his nurse dropped something into his pre-show meds.

No wonder the venue is seated for the evening. Even more considerate, the provision of an intermission, presumably to allow some of the more delicately aged members of the audience to empty the bladder (or bag) and be back in their seats for the second half.

But, back to the first half, and what is - thanks to modern technology - still only the third track of the evening.

"Can you tell me where my country lies?", sings the preening Sylvan, who is part Regency dandy, part Robert Plant with his pre-Raphaelite blond curls, and part master scenery eater, as if lifted direct from some We Will Rock You-style tribute show.

At times his theatricality is tediously diverting, but as a singer - with notable vocal similarities to both Gabriel and Collins - he carries off the complexity of this material with aplomb, none more so than on Dancing With A Moonlit Knight, the puntastic opening track of Selling England By The Pound , an early take on Euro-scepticism with such 1973-topical wordplay as "Knights of the Green Shield stamp and shout".

Selling England... remains Hackett's favourite Genesis album, and the reaction to its opening track being performed on this warm April evening, four decades after its originally release, provides a clear watermark for the 119-year-old Pigalle theatre's 1000 or so patrons.

There is more to come with Firth Of Fifth. Always one of the original band's stage favourites, King plays Tony Banks' original arpeggiated piano introduction note perfectly. The song's much-anticipated highlight is its guitar solo. I learned to play it myself as a teenager, and on a Spanish guitar. I was very proud to tell this to Hackett himself when I interviewed him a few years ago. He wasn't that impressed, to tell you the truth. I don't blame him.

For me, Hackett's career in Genesis has existed largely through photographs: having left the band in 1977, before they became mirthsome stalwarts of MTV, and before they became quite the stadium force they became, Hackett playing Firth Of Fifth has, for me, existed largely through a relatively slender number of still photographs, and no live recordings. Not for the first time this week, I am taken back to my youth, though with happier memories than that of a certain prime minister's time in office.

Hackett's last two albums with Genesis, A Trick Of The Tail and Wind And Wuthering, also contained some of his strongest contributions. The earlier albums were often complex tapestries of rock, jazz, folk and even classical music, lyrically wedded to literary influences like Lewis Caroll, Keats and Coleridge.

As the band's sound started to warm up a tad, and their storytelling started to become a little less surreal,   another side of Hackett's guitar playing emerged.

A Trick Of The Tail's Entangled was and remains a beautiful song, and tonight Hackett and band recreate it with pristine arrangement - Hackett's 12-string acoustic guitar picking out the song's pleasing melody, the entire band combining on vocal harmonies which, on the original carried more than just a hint of Crosby, Stills and Nash.

The irony of Hackett leaving Genesis after Wind And Wuthering is that it also contains some of his most expressive work with the band: the intro of Blood On The Rooftops, co-written by Hackett and Collins, was a brief but delightful showcase of this guitarist's accomplished classical playing. He has since recorded entire albums of classical guitar, with interpretations of compositions by Bach. As he plays the ...Rooftops intro, seated and with a nylon-stringed acoustic, I conclude that I could listen to Hackett just playing classical guitar all night long.

There is more pomp and circumstance to come from Wind And Wuthering as the ensemble move on to Unquiet Slumbers For The Sleepers, the first part of an Abbey Road-style melody which continues with the stomping ...In That Quiet Earth, a long-time part of Hackett's live show, and another showcase for Hackett's fretboard dexterity.

After the interval, the band the band kick off Part 2 with A Trick Of The Tail's Dance On A Volcano. A sizeable number of punters are still shuffling back from their comfort break. However, clearly the pause proved to be a useful reviver, as the next song, The Musical Box - the oldest track of the night - leads to a notable rocking sensation in the rows.

The already excitable audience is then thrown into relative paroxysms by Supper's Ready. When recorded in 1972 for the Foxtrot album, it was a collage of several songs, a pick'n'mix of time signatures (one 'bit' being Apocalypse In 9/8 {Co-Starring the Delicious Talents of Gabble Ratchet}), resulting in a 23-minute piece full of loud bits and quiet bits, battles scenes and even ambitious Biblical references, such as the bombastic "take me to the New Jerusalem!" denoument, which sees Sylvan standing at the top of the stage steps, arms stretched out as if being crucified. The giggles from the row behind me - which have been getting louder with each of Sylvan's appearances - are now audible above the PA.

As the band emerges for their encore of the always enjoyable Los Endos, there are shouts of "Ze Knife! ZE KNIFE!!!". Thankfully this doesn't herald an otherwise unnoticed blade-wielding assassin, but a call for a track off the first 'proper' Genesis album, Trespass in 1970, and recorded prior to Hackett and Collins joining the band. It's an admirable shout. Recorded long before the Sex Pistols came along, it would have made an admirable punk song. Which just goes to show that you think you know a music genre, and then you discover that pigeonholing really doesn't mean a thing.

The European continent was always a fertile territory for Genesis in the early days, and progressive rock continues to be alive and indecently healthy in France. Just last month my friend Steven Wilson brought his own tour to Le Trianon, where he met a similarly enthusiastic response from a dedicated crowd of followers. Go to Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany and Italy in particular and it is treated with reverence rather than the disdain it meets in Britain.

The stupid thing is that, as Steve Hackett has demonstrated tonight, it's all just musical notes. Whether they're delivered in bursts of three or 30-minute songs, it is only ever about melody and rhythm, rather than the labels attached to them.

Walking into Le Trianon tonight I was somewhat hesitant about what a show, based on such old material of a now defunct band (as opposed to Chic, who were a funk band, hem-hem...) would hold up live under the auspices of their onetime lead guitarist. In actual fact, quite well: Hackett leaves plenty of room for his supporting players to add their part (if, in Sylvan's case, a little too much), while giving him the space and the platform to demonstrate his considerable virtuosity, one which, in the pantheon of guitar heroes, is not recognised anywhere near enough.

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